The nuanced horror-thriller is a difficult genre to master. To pull it off in a compelling manner takes precision and a sophisticated understanding of the ways in which the elements of film—sound, cinematography, editing, and music—come together to create intrigue. Lorcan Finnegan's TIFF 2016 premiere Without Name demonstrates a mastery of this technique.
Though thin on story, the slow-burn environmental thriller is fueled by its ominous overtones. When Eric, a land surveyor, is dispatched to a remote forest in Ireland and asked to keep his findings discreet, he discovers a journal filled with forest mythology, from powerful plant potions to the philosophical achings of trees. As he surveys the woods, they slowly come alive—the light shifts suddenly, the trees creak. He is swallowed into the woods and seemingly spat out the other side. The fog reveals and then disappears dark figures. All the while, Eric loses his grip on reality as Without Name builds to a hallucinatory fever pitch resembling your worst woodsy fears.
No Film School caught up with Finnegan and three of the film's actors—James Browne, Alan McKenna, and Niamh Algar—in Toronto to discuss the process of creating a supernatural thriller in the remote wilderness.
"We had an editor working on it from the beginning. You're seeing the film come together as you're shooting it. It's like sculpting the footage as you go."
No Film School: What's the genesis story of this film?
Finnegan: There was a scheme set up with the Irish Film Board to fund three projects from first-time filmmakers. Last time they did it was seven years ago. We applied, and the script was chosen. We went straight into production and we finished it all within eight months. We had to shoot in winter well before any buds or leaves were forming on the trees to get all that fractal stuff going on.
NFS: What about the idea for the film? It's very unique, a sort of mythical eco-horror-thriller.
Finnegan: Oh, the idea. That's much more interesting. Garrett [Shanley, the writer] and I seem to be preoccupied with this man versus nature theme. We made a short film called Foxes, which is sort of the opposite of this one.
I watched this Finnish doc called Into Eternity. It's really good. It's about the nuclear waste program in Finland where they want to get rid of all this nuclear waste—dig a massive hole in the stone and bury it but about a mile below the surface and cover it up. It was going to be really radioactive and extremely dangerous for 100,000 years. They're trying figure out a way of warning people in 100,000 years. How do you communicate with people that haven't even evolved yet? They made hieroglyphics and all sorts of stuff.
Finnegan: We were thinking, "What would be down there?" There could be some sort of spirit or entity or something. We started thinking about an entity that would protect a natural environment, and that's sort of what the forest [in Without Name] is. I can't really say too much because I'll end up just giving away. But we thought of an entity that would be there as a guardian of the woods and would always replace itself with somebody else.
There was a lot of stuff going on in Ireland at the time as well. They're talking about selling our national forestry, to the Chinese, to pay back the taxes to the IMF after the recession. And there was this pipe they built. There was a documentary called Pipe as well, about Shell building this big pipeline. They brought in private security. We were preoccupied with the idea: if nature could manage itself, what would it do?
NFS: There's a great ensemble here. How did you guys meet? What was the casting process like?
Finnegan: Alan [McKenna, the main character] was the toughest person. A commercial director in London, Pete Risky, had seen Foxes and he got back to me saying, "Hey, we really like your short film!" I just worked with this actor Alan McKenna and I was looking at his profile on United Agents because our casting director was also at the same agency, and she suggested him. I was looking at his thing and [Pete, the commercial director] sent me his link! It all seems quite serendipitous. Alan did a couple of audition tapes on Vimeo. Those sleepless nights ended.
Niamh Algar came in and after, she sent me a link, and said, "That was a shit audition. I want to do it over. Look at me again, look at me again." I said okay. She obviously really wanted the part. James as well. When he came in for the part, he was saying, "Oh, I just feel like doing some yoga. Hello."
James Browne: I had just come back from India. I had literally just landed. I was like, "Cool. I just did a lot of background without even realizing it."
"The gaffer is watching the clouds and would say, 'We're going to have some amazing light movement now, so everyone get ready and point the camera in the right place.'"
NFS: So much of Alan's performance is without dialogue. How did you each communicate what you needed from each other?
Finnegan: It's a very tonal thing, yeah. It relies a lot on atmosphere. There was a lot of dialogue, we just took it all out.
NFS: Oh, really. Why?
Finnegan: There was actually a lot more dialogue in the script than there needed to be for the story. Even in the notebook, there were all these philosophical ideas about communicating with nature. That was all in the script as voiceover. Alan was reading it, which you kind of need to do to get the vibe from the page, but you can translate that visually by cutting to something in a movie. It gives you the same sense and the same feeling you would as if you've read five pages of description and conversation.
Credit: TIFF 2016
NFS: What about building out the atmosphere in the editing?
Finnegan: We had an editor working on it from the beginning. He ringed me every morning saying what he assembled, what's working well, what needs an extra scene. In a specific scene, we needed something to end on an up beat, and we didn't have that. We were able to change the performance. It's great when you're seeing the film come together as you're shooting it. It's like sculpting the footage as you go.
NFS: It must have been challenging lighting the woods and getting sound.
Finnegan: There were sheep. Like, "Baaaaaaa." I was like, "Shut up!"
Browne: It was winter. We were lucky, though, because we wanted to shoot at night, and in Ireland, it gets dark very early, around 3 or 4 o'clock. We were in a valley, as well. The sun would disappear and we were able to get the right shots that we needed a little quicker. The location for the forest and everything was in a place called Landlock, Ireland and it's beautiful. Going to work there was just a dream.
Finnegan: When you talk about atmosphere, you can't help but be influenced by where we were. It's one of the magical places in Ireland. The location was often great for lighting because that's what's in the valley—there are a lot of clouds that move across it. The gaffer is watching the clouds and would say, "We're going to have some amazing light movement now, so everyone get ready and point the camera in the right place."
"That place was cursed. You don't mess with it."
We did a test shoot before. I wanted this ethereal light moving through the woods. We were talking about putting a massive light on tracks, moving it through, getting a clean plate, and painting out the tracks so you just have a source, but not be able to see the source. That didn't work. It was too bright. You need a massive light; also, we couldn't lay tracks in the forest because it was a national park area. We couldn't disturb it. The DP and I were looking at the way as it was shifting [naturally] so we thought the only way to do it would be to wait for it. We let it roll for 15 minutes and then we could manipulate the time and all that. We could speed it up and slow it down.
NFS: What about the soundtrack and the music?
Finnegan: I worked with Neil [O'Connor, the composer] and Gavin O'Brien on a previous short film. We didn't want to do anything obviously Gothic or horror-ish, but there were inspirations from Ghost Box music with the piano and '70s-style stuff. Neil and Gavin built instruments, like a broken piano. The deal was to do everything for real but then distort it and bend it using old analog processors and stuff like that. They just played around a lot and kept sending me stuff way before we started shooting. By the time it came to edit, there was already quite a lot of music made for it.
Credit: TIFF 2016
NFS: You guys are so efficient.
Finnegan: Patrick [Drummond, the sound editor] was really handy as well. He was laying down some of that stuff so you could feel it forming and getting the vibe, and then you're more confident that you can just cut to a tree on a scene for 40 seconds and it will work.
Alan McKenna: Having music already along definitely getting to film the mood which helped the editing process.
Niamh Algar:We even got to have a listen in the woods on the headphones.
Alan McKenna: How come I didn't get a listen?
Finnegan: You did. He was like, "This is boring. I want some Britney."
NFS: Was there any crazy story that happened on set? [The team erupts with laughter.] You've got to tell me what it is.
James Browne: A lighting the frame was, it?
Browne: We had one location in one day, the exterior cottage, and it was an intense day. We were all there happy, camped out, and this unbelievable storm came in from nowhere.
Algar: You could hardly stand in it. It was just literally pushing you along.
Browne: We were surrounded by big, huge trees and the sun was just amazing. It was phenomenal. We were all kind of willing to keep going, knowing it was a little bit rough. A lighting frame was behind the house and a gust of wind picked it up over the top of the house. I was walking away and I was like, "Look at the moon." And the next second, I just heard a whoooosh and I felt it go by. [Shows a scar from the incident.]
NFS: You are so lucky.
Finnegan: Yeah, apparently. Although, it would have been great promotion for the film. I was done by then. "Okay, that's wrap."
NFS: I think it was nature trying to tell you to get out of the forest.
Finnegan: We could have done better and gone back to get some other shots, but no—that place was cursed. You don't mess with it.